‘Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas’ looks at composers behind holiday songs

TORONTO — Canadian musician Steven Page grew up Jewish with Christian relatives on his father’s side, so when the holidays rolled around, they’d celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas — a.k.a. Chrismukkah.

“We never had a tree. That was like a dividing line in our family,” the former Barenaked Ladies frontman said in a recent phone interview from his home in Upstate New York.

“There was never a tree, but there were still stockings. We didn’t do the Chinese restaurant thing that a lot of other Jewish families do, because we always had somewhere to go for Christmas dinner.”

Page also recalls singing Christmas carols in choirs in elementary school.

“When you can go, ‘Oh, that song was written by a Jewish guy,’ it was always kind of a point of pride for us,” said the singer, who is set to resume a tour in the new year and is working on a new album.

“Then you realize that so many of these great American standards, holiday or otherwise, were written by Jewish composers.”

The new film “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” debuting Dec. 3 on Documentary Channel, looks at how Jewish songwriters came to pen such Christmas standards as ”Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ”White Christmas.”

The film, which also airs Dec. 7 on CBC, is centred around a Jewish family gathering in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day — a tradition for many Jewish families.

Page is among the Canadian performers who drop in to the restaurant to give their own renditions of holiday standards. Experts including a musicologist, a priest and a rabbi explain the history of Jewish involvement in Christmas.

The Chinese restaurant in the film is Sea-Hi, said Oscar-nominated Toronto filmmaker Larry Weinstein, who directed the documentary. It’s where his Jewish family went on Christmas Day when he was growing up in Toronto. Like Page, Weinstein’s family also had Christmas stockings and he admits he believed in Santa Claus until he was about 11.

In many ways, the Jewish songwriters of the 1920s through the 1950s were perfect for penning yuletide tunes because they understood the holiday family sentiment and the Christmas story of being an outsider, said Weinstein.

“And an outsider who maybe idealizes what Christmas is all about,” he said. ”They don’t know about families being together and arguing or having a fight to the death over a wishbone.

“They see it as this very beautiful family time, and family meant so much to these people, especially the ones who had emigrated or their parents had been emigres…. Then of course very few of the songs do refer to the religious aspect.”

As the film explains, many Jewish composers wrote Christmas classics during or after the Second World War in New York, at a time when there were few opportunities for immigrants but songwriting was open to all. They wrote the tunes in a secular way that included everyone in the holiday.

Weinstein said he wasn’t able to get the rights to all the songs he wanted for the film.

“Sometimes there was a bit of a sinister reason why we couldn’t,” he said. ”Not the composers, because they had passed away, not their families.

“But the lawyers that held on to these estates simply were not interested in a film that brought up the fact that these Christian songs were written by Jewish composers. They thought that that couldn’t be good for the image of the song, that that might hurt the song. At least that’s the impression that we got.”

Page said Christmas songs help musicians find a common ground with their audience, yet writing a contemporary holiday tune is a challenge for many.

“I think because there’s so little irony that can be put into Christmas songs, so for something to be purely sentimental or joyful is harder for people to feel comfortable with,” said Page, who put out the 2004 Christmas album “Barenaked for the Holidays” with his former band.

These days the holidays also don’t seem to have the same “wide-eyed, naive innocence” of yore, said Weinstein.

“Certainly anything post-9/11, we’re just not the same. We’re not innocent and sweet, which is very sad to think about.”

“Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas” also repeats on Documentary Channel on Dec. 4, Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.

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